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Religious freedom can't trump student health

  • 13 August 2019
In April 2019, while the Australian Law Reform Commission began investigating the minefield that is discrimination versus religious freedom, I went to get my routine pap smear. While Christian organisations lobbied to protect their freedom, I was called back. 'Stevie, unfortunately you've had an abnormal pap. You have HPV 18, with high grade cervical cell abnormalities. Did you get the Gardasil vaccine in high school?'

The independent Christian school I attended seldom comes to mind. Years of exposure to the melting-pot of cosmopolitan Melbourne has distanced me from the sheltered 17 year old I was in 2006. But I do remember that newsletter.

I completed year 12 the same year that Australia's National HPV Vaccination Program began offering a free opt-in Gardasil vaccination in Australian schools. It protected against four types of HPV, including 16 and 18, which cause 70 to 90 percent of cervical cancers, by offering primary prevention against precancerous and cancerous lesions developing on the cervix, as well as protecting against other vaginal, vulva and anal cancers. In 2007, the official school-based program was rolled out nationally. But I remember the wording of the 2006 newsletter clearly. It stated that Gardasil was an optional vaccine for girls who were sexually active.

My school accommodated a range of theological perspectives, but all of them converged on one point: sex was an activity reserved for marriage. This is unsurprising; it remains standard across most branches of Christianity. In my school years, a particularly vigorous branch of American Pentecostalism was in vogue. While our sex-ed program wasn't strictly abstinence only, the rhetoric featured prominently. Anti-promiscuity literature like Josh McDowell's True Love Waits was widely distributed. Local churches offered 'purity rings' if we agreed to abstain from sex until marriage. In this idealised world, we'd all have only one sexual partner. There would be no need for the HPV vaccine.

This is the context in which we young female students took that consent form home, in which we were offered to leave class for the vaccination. I remember the snide remarks kids are wont to make; the names for girls rumoured to be 'doing it'. The conclusion, if not expressly stated, was abundantly clear. To return the signed form would be to out ourselves. It would indicate we were sexually active, or that we envisioned a future where we might have more than one sexual partner.

Whether we were or weren't having sex yet, it was